Biology and design have always existed side by side, but new technologies and scientific developments have opened the door to stronger collaboration between the two than ever before. Biodesign offers incredible means of reshaping our design processes and supply chains – its most vocal advocates insist it can and will instigate a total revolution of the way we produce and consume. But the realization of this potential and the maturation of the field – a whole territory yet to explore – depends on the cooperation of design, science and business minds alike.
For our talks programme at Frame Awards 2020, we called on Faber Futures founder and director Natsai Audrey Chieza, Klarenbeek & Dros founder Eric Klarenbeek, Open Cell director Helene Steiner and panel chair Nancy Diniz, Central Saint Martins’ biodesign course leader and architect and partner at bioMATTERS. Our questions for them were aimed at getting to the core of the ongoing conversation on biodesign: Can biomaterials can be the basis of a building a sustainable economy? And, if so, how we can move from material innovation to widespread implementation?
The respective work of the panel members has helped pave the way for this very innovation and implementation: Chieza has developed a method of dyeing textiles sustainably with the help of pigment-producing bacteria, and her team consults brands on the kind of infrastructure it will take to actually work at the intersection of technology, nature and society. Klarenbeek and his design studio have worked with a variety of biomaterials and are conceiving new ways to source them – they’ve identified how to convert microalgae into biopolymers, for example. Steiner and OpenCell enable innovation, providing early stage biotech startups in London with affordable laboratory space. And Diniz, with her company, showcases how we can better utilize waste, while she simultaneously educates the next generation of biodesigners. This offers only a glimpse into their portfolios.
Yet there are hurdles to overcome in the practice of biodesign. Chieza reflected: ‘Innovators today are looking at different organisms and different biological systems and saying, “How do we make this particular organism create this particular compound?” and then investors say, “We will only invest in this if it can compete with the price of the petroleum derivative.” And so this is shaping the market of fabrication with living systems.’ Referring to the bacteria she works with, Chieza explained that viewing biomaterials as commodity compounds hinders their development. Thus it also becomes necessary to stop thinking about realistic scales of production in the framework of mass industry.
Recycling is useless: we have to find new cycles of production
‘It’s a misconception that you have to use less and produce less waste,’ Klarenbeek stated. ‘It’s just that we deal incorrectly with our environment and our materials – it doesn’t make sense to recycle toxic plastics because you just want to get rid of them. Recycling is useless: we have to find new cycles of production. I think it's very important to think about the whole structure. That's why we work with farmers, engineers, even cheesemakers who build cheese factories – all of these people are in disciplines which we formerly didn't work with – in order to understand how to scale up these [biodesign] processes and bring them into reality.’
It’s not just the creation of a new material, it's more about looking at the whole system
Likewise, Steiner believes that there needs to be a platform for people from varying disciplines and vocations to co-develop. ‘Different industries and research could come together and really test how the future of living systems and materials can actually look like. Because, at the moment, the reality is that you do need a laboratory to actually produce what Natsai and Eric are, and you either have to build it yourself from scratch or you have to knock on people’s doors and ask if they'll kindly let you in and actually work with it.’ This means that initiatives are often limited to a small scale. ‘We need a lot of people joining and testing it out – I think the next step is also to just encourage a little bit of risk-taking and exploration. It’s not just the creation of a new material, it's more about looking at the whole system and the circle in which that material is embedded in.’
Nature, if you think of it as a technology, is the most scalable technology in the world
There’s no argument that the future brings great promise. ‘Whenever people say “Can this scale?” I always say that nature, if you think of it as a technology, is the most scalable technology in the world because you find it everywhere,’ said Chieza. ‘We have an Amazon forest because nature scales. The question is how do we actually take those principles and think about how they are interacting with our communities, with our societies – that's when it becomes interesting.’
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